16th September 2023 – (Seoul) As the United States and South Korea commemorate 73 years since the start of the Korean War, their defence establishments are working to enhance military cooperation. However, this risks exacerbating tensions and missing opportunities for peace. Recent years have seen expanded combined exercises, increased weapons sales to Seoul, and talks on improving “extended deterrence” against North Korea. While framed as prudent preparation, doubling down on the alliance could prove counterproductive.
Above all, it undercuts diplomatic outreach to Pyongyang that is vital for reducing cross-border animosity. North Korea views displays of alliance solidarity as threatening. Boosting military coordination when talks are stalled only widens the gulf for future negotiations.
Meanwhile, excessive readiness drills lead to fatigue. Endless exercises strain resources and cut into troop downtime. Operational capabilities may suffer if no political progress materialises. This security dilemma also hampers inter-Korean relations. With U.S.-South Korea military strength constantly being showcased, Pyongyang refuses to let down its guard. The cycle of distrust becomes harder to escape.
In South Korea itself, civil society has increasingly questioned the costs of relying so heavily on American military protection. Younger generations lack the same threat perceptions that originally bonded the alliance.
Doubts have grown over whether U.S. troops truly enhance South Korean security or are more concerned with America’s regional presence. Persisting frictions around U.S. bases add to public ambivalence. This suggests the alliance risks losing domestic constituency unless it evolves toward a more equal, mutually beneficial partnership. Simply amplifying military drills and acquisition plans may not sit well with the South Korean public.
It also does little to improve regional stability when South Korea could play a bridging role between powers. Although Washington pressures Seoul to explicitly counter China, neutrality would better suit Korean interests.
Likewise, joining U.S. containment of Russia impedes South Korea’s Eurasia Initiative to deepen ties with continental economies. Choosing sides constrains economic options. The Biden administration should thus rethink its outlook on the alliance. Rather than demand lockstep strategic alignment, it could afford Seoul greater foreign policy autonomy.
This could include exploring eventually removing some U.S. troops from South Korea as deterrence requirements decline. Such forward deployment made sense when confronting Communism, but new strategic realities demand flexibility.
Ultimately, lasting security on the Korean Peninsula will arise from reconciliation not military dominance. South Korea balancing deftly between powers is vital to realising this peace. Nevertheless, the more America draws Seoul into an explicitly anti-China posture and pumps up bilateral military strength, the more elusive such reconciliation will become. The risks of tightening alliance ties at this moment outweigh the presumed benefits.